Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, aka. Curse of the Demon (1957) is a film that inhabits both the haunted twilight world of Val Lewton and the very visceral giant monster picture with equal aplomb. Tourneur was Lewton’s protegee. When the film was conceived, the titular Demon wasn’t supposed to be seen at all, but the producer insisted on giving the audience the monster they were paying to see, much to the dismay of Tourneur and the film’s up and coming production designer, the great Ken Adam. It was Adam who was responsible for designing the magnificent demon that graced the film’s posters, based on ancient woodcuts and other images from antiquity. It’s a highly effective monstrosity, made the more so by only showing it twice and very briefly.
There was an earlier blu-ray release of Night of the Demon in France, which I have not seen, but the new German release from Anolis Entertainment fully lives up to the company’s stellar reputation. It contains both the US Curse of the Demon cut of the film, and the British Night of the Demon cut. Curse gets a truly stellar restoration, with a sharp (but not over-sharp) looking image, with beautiful gradation of gray tones and deep contrast that never devolves into black crush. Grain is present, but in no way obtrusive. Night also gets a good restoration, if not quite on the same level, with white specs visible throughout, and gray tones not looking quite as rich. I don’t wish to make a big deal of Night’s shortcomings, because this version is still extremely watchable.
Based on M.R. James’ short story Casting the Runes, the film owes its success as much to the script as to Tourneur’s direction. When a researcher into paranormal psychology, responsible for investigating a local witch cult in Britain, is found murdered, his body horribly mutilated, the investigation is taken over by his skeptical colleague–an American scientist, John Holden (Dana Andrews). But when Holden crosses paths with Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), the deceptively buffoonish leader of the cult, his skepticism is challenged in ways that he could never have dreamed of.
One of the film’s great strengths is the arc of its main character. Believing that all paranormal activity can be explained by natural phenomena and delusions of the mind, Holden embarks on his investigation, by the end of which, his disbelief is completely shattered, although even then he doesn’t want to admit it. The film’s other great strength is the charismatic performance of Niall MacGinnis as Karswell, the amiable leader of the witch cult. MacGinnis portrays him almost as a clown (in fact he wears a clown’s outfit in one scene where he performs magic tricks for a group of children). And it’s while he’s wearing his clown outfit that he conjures up a sudden typhoon to scare away Holden. He is at once a jester and a villain with dangerous powers, and his beautifully deadpan performance strikes just the right note.
Jacques Tourneur’s direction also hits just the right tone between atmosphere and momentum. The film never drags, yet there are plenty of great directorial visual touches, especially in moments when Holden’s sense of reality is shaken. Like Val Lewton, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere, and it’s fun to see him pay tribute to his old mentor, during the film’s closing shot, when a train suddenly speeds across the screen with a loud whistle, startling us one last time. The homage to the bus scene in Cat People is obvious.
As this is an Anolis Entertainment release, there are plenty of extra features, as one would expect from this superb company. In fact, it’s amazing what they managed to squeeze in, considering there are two feature films on the disk. First, there is an audio commentary track on Night (but not on Curse), with Dr. Rolf Giesen and Uwe Sommerlad, that makes me wish I spoke German. Next is The Making of Night of the Demon, a superb 20-minute documentary by Marcus Hearn, which features interviews by Jonathan Rigby, Tony Earnshaw, Peggy Cummins, and Sir Ken Adam. We are also given an 8-minute 8mm home movie of the main film, and an original US Curse of the Demon trailer.
By any measure, Night/Curse of the Demon is one of the truly great British horror films and must be seen by anyone with an interest in the genre. And, though I sound like a broken record when I say this, Anolis Entertainment provide the most comprehensive blu-ray release of it, thus far. Very highly recommended.